Dental visits decreased during the pandemic

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The frequency of dental visits decreased during the pandemic, especially during the period of lockdowns when dental practices were closed, according to an article published recently in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

Researchers looked at patients visiting dentists in Alberta, Canada, from March 12, 2020, through the end of September 2020. They compared visits during that time frame with visits in the same months in 2018 and 2019.

"Due to the current restrictions imposed on the delivery of dental treatments and considering financial and psychological burdens secondary to the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals are likely to avoid non-emergency dental treatments," wrote the authors, led by Dr. Mohammad Moharrami, a master's student in dentistry at the University of Alberta (JADA, September 29, 2021).

Moharrami and colleagues sought to understand how frequently people visited the dentist before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of predicting dental visits from different types of patients. They looked at the age, sex, residential area, economic status, service providers, and oral diagnosis of those in the study.

The researchers first looked at visits to hospital- and community-based outpatient clinics before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, they further narrowed their search by specifically looking at lockdown stages of the pandemic when private dental practices closed from March 12 to May 14, 2020.

Data for the report came from the Canadian National Ambulatory Care Reporting System and the Canadian Institute for Health Information. In total, 14,319 dental visits were accounted for in the report, including 5,671 in 2018, 5,036 in 2019, and 3,612 in 2020.

Dentist visits overall decreased during the pandemic, but dentists saw an increase in visits for infections, salivary problems, and temporomandibular disorders in 2020. In addition, more men visited dentists than women, and the mean age of a person visiting was 29.

"Based on our results, not only has the frequency of dental visits decreased but also the pattern of visits has changed dramatically," the authors wrote.

In 2020, patients visited oral surgeons and pediatric dentists more often than general dentists. They also sought out dental hygiene services less often, in line with guidance against nonemergency treatments.

Several factors could have resulted in a lower number of dental visits during the pandemic, including scarce information on COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic and fear of exposure in dental offices. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not release interim prevention and control guidance for dental settings until May.

"The public and professional guidelines for the work environment had not been developed fully," the authors wrote.

The study was not without its shortcomings. Data on the pattern and frequency of dental visits are lacking, according to the authors. They also pointed out that some have doubts about the validity of administrative databases such as those used for the study.

Furthermore, the study only looked at hospital- and community-based outpatient clinics and not private clinics. In the future, studies need to look at private clinics as well to better understand the issues at hand, the authors noted.

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